Forget rubber bullets, beanbag rounds, or even the advanced non-lethal ShockRounds I wrote about last month.
The Active Denial System – developed by Raytheon (NYSE: RTN) with $40 million in funding from the Pentagon – offers an entirely new form of crowd control that’s even less lethal than current methods. But it’s just as effective (if not better) at discouraging public misconduct.
And instead of relying on physical ammunition, this device – better known as the “pain ray” – delivers a blast of invisible, painful heat to troublemakers.
Here’s how it works…
An Invisible Laser Beam That Would Make Dr. Evil Proud
Essentially, the device works much like a microwave oven, using an electromagnetic beam to cause water molecules in the body to heat up.
I know. Being zapped by a microwave doesn’t exactly sound non-lethal.
But what sets this apart from the microwave in your kitchen is the frequency of the beam.
You see, unlike the low frequency beams created by a microwave oven, the Active Denial System’s frequency of 95 gigahertz can’t travel deeper than 0.4 millimeters below the skin’s surface. To put that in gadget perspective, it would need to penetrate 23 times deeper in order to blast through an iPhone 4.
So instead of being cooked from the inside out, it feels like an intense wave of heat, as if an oven door was opened in front of you. And that painful shock is enough to make would-be assailants rethink their next move.
Wired’s Spencer Ackerman – who braved the device’s wrath – says that he was able to hold out for “two seconds of curiosity before” his body took control and got out of the way.
With that description, it’s easy to see why this would be useful on a mischievous crowd. And better yet, the device works at much greater distances than current crowd control technology. Which is one reason why “the U.S. military envisions a wide array of uses,” according to AFP’s Mathieu Rabechault.
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So why haven’t we seen this in action yet?
A few reasons…
Ironing Out the Wrinkles
First, there’s the simple fact that the public would misunderstand how the technology works. And many just wouldn’t be keen on microwaving other people. Like U.S. Marine Colonel, Tracy Taffola says, “There are a lot of misperceptions out there.”
Remember, the 95-gigahertz beam barely sinks below the skin’s surface. As a result, after “over 11,000 exposures on people… we’ve only had two injuries that required medical attention… And in both cases, injuries were fully recovered without complications,” says Stephanie Miller of the Air Force Research Laboratory.
Still, when the system was first deployed in 2010 in Afghanistan for crowd control use, it never saw any action. At the time, a military spokesman said, “The operational need for the device was not approved by commanders.”
Ackerman provides a much more likely rationale: “It was too great a propaganda boon to the Taliban, who’d say the U.S. was microwaving Afghans, giving them cancer.”
That makes sense. And I’m sure the device’s accurate – yet fear-inducing – “pain ray” moniker doesn’t help on that front.
But even if the benefit of neutralizing combatants without causing long-term harm gets everyone to ignore the evil-sounding name, that’s not the only issue.
The machine itself takes 16 hours to prepare for action. Which means that the best way to use the system would be to keep it plugged in at all times. Not a great solution. Especially considering that just a few months ago, the Department of Defense released its operational energy strategy, which focuses on boosting energy efficiency in the military.
Given the technology’s current limitations, we likely won’t see this being used in battle – or on Occupy protestors – any time soon. But with its ability to disperse crowds of dangerous combatants with essentially zero collateral damage, don’t expect this technology to sit on the sidelines for long.